The case against a woman accused of bilking more than $300,000 from a priest, his parishoners and several other St. Lawrence County residents will move forward.
After hearing testimony Wednesday from three witnesses and seeing three checks that Bobbie Jo Zeller, 36, of 72 W. Main St., Apt. 4, Norfolk, allegedly presented to the Rev. Msgr. Robert L. Lawler in an effort to repay him, Ogdensburg City Court Judge William R. Small ruled there was enough evidence to move forward with the case.
Taking the stand at the hearing were Msgr. Lawler, Beth Rockhill, an employee of Community Bank in Potsdam where the checks were said to originate, and state police Investigator Peter T. Kraengel.
Msgr. Lawler testified that his first encounter with Zeller came by chance in 2009 or 2010 when a woman stopped by the rectory in tears and in need of help.
He said he was led to believe she was on her way to Rochester to take her son to the diabetic clinic there. He said he gave her between $100 and $150, which was a gift to her.
He said Zeller made efforts to pay him back that first gift, eventually putting the money in the church offering plate.
She returned a year later to the church again seeking money, which Msgr. Lawler said he provided in the form of another gift to Zeller of a similar amount.
However, as Zeller continued to ask for money, he said she made it clear to him that he would be paid back, and he wanted to do what he could to help her.
She told me about herself and some of the difficulties she was facing, he said. She said she wanted to have a good life for her and her son. She seemed to have great love and devotion to her son.
The monsignor said he continued giving her money, usually in the form of cash deposited on a Green Dot prepaid debit card. The giving continued until last year, he ran out of money and cashed out his retirement account.
I was giving her everything I had coming in, he said.
Msgr. Lawler estimated that he had given Zeller at least $150,000 before he began approaching parishioners for money, collecting what he called in court Wednesday approximately $100,000 on her behalf.
He said he wasnt sure exactly how much money he gave Zeller, but she was keeping track of the amounts, further indication to him that he would one day be paid back.
She had it right down to the dollar or penny, he said. It was amazing. I took that as a sign she was sincere.
Later that year, Monsignor Lawler said Zeller mentioned something about a letter from the FBI that said a case for which she told him she was cooperating with the agency was coming to a close, meaning she would soon have money to pay him back.
The monsignor said when he initially asked for the letter, Zeller said she couldnt give it to him.
With great reluctance, she said she could make a copy and give it to me, he said.
He said she told him that if it ever got out she gave someone a copy of the letter the case she was helping them with would be thrown out, and she would never get the money needed to pay him back.
She was very nervous, he said. I promised to keep it to myself.
He said Zeller heard in January that the monsignor had an appointment with Investigator Kraengel. At that point she presented him with three checks that Ms. Rockhill would testify were fraudulent documents that did not contain a routing number or account number connected to Community Bank.
The first check she gave me was on the 8th, but dated for the 12th, he recalled. I said Bobbie, this check is worthless.
After refusing to accept the checks, which were all post-dated, he said Zeller left and returned with checks dated for that day.
I was immediately suspicious, he said.
Zellers attorney, Brian Pilatzke, Canton, noted there were differences between the monsignors testimony and his statements to police.
Her own estimate was $300,000, Msgr. Lawler said. Thats proved by the check she gave me.
When Mr. Pilatzke asked if he ever told Zeller how much he was owed, he said he did not.
I just told her I needed to be repaid. Ive been hearing things so long. I need to be repaid, he said.
When Mr. Pilatzke asked if Zeller had ever made any attempts to pay him back, Monsignor Lawler said other than the first time, no.
She never gave me anything, he said. It was the other way around. I was always giving to her. She never gave me anything.
During closing statements Mr. Pilatzke asked for the charges to be dismissed, noting the inconsistencies in the monsignors testimony and his statements to police. He also said in order for the second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument charge to stick they needed to prove Zeller knew the checks were fake.
Assistant St. Lawrence County District Attorney Viacheslav Slava Mareyev said while the monsignors testimony may have been vague and, at times, inconsistent, he also noted that in order for the grand larceny charge to stick they didnt need to account for every last dime, only $3,000 of it, which was taken care of by Monsignor Lawlers retirement account.
Mr. Mareyev also noted that Mr. Kraengels testimony proved Zeller knew the checks were fake.
Mr. Kraengel testified that he received a call from Zeller at about 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 8. She told him the checks would not clear and he would be arresting her soon.
While Zeller is actually facing eight felony counts, Wednesdays preliminary hearing only addressed four of them, the three counts of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument and one count of the third-degree grand larceny.
Mr. Small said several of the other charges against her fall outside his jurisdiction. Mr. Kraengel said those charges, which include first-degree identity theft, fourth-degree grand larceny and two additional counts of third-degree grand larceny, as well as up to four additional petit larceny charges that have yet to been filed, will be filed with the appropriate courts in the near future.
In addition to Msgr. Lawler, Zeller is charged with scamming The Rev. James E. LaRue, DeKalb Junction; Robert W. and Gloria J. Dietze, a brother and sister from Norwood; and more than 20 parishioners and friends of Msgr. Lawler who gave him money on her behalf. When totaled the amount of money allegedly received by Zeller under false pretenses totals more than $300,000.
Zeller was sent back to St. Lawrence County jail, Canton, without bail.